Within the past two years, both the United States and Canada have had their Federal elections. Obviously each country’s system of electing their leaders is as different as our forms of government. The United States elects its president separately from the rest of its lawmakers, while Canada sees the whole of its elected representation stand for re-election.
In Canada the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party that manages to gain the most seats in the House of Commons. In the United States the electing of representatives to the House or the Senate has no bearing on the selection of who becomes President.
All you have to do to become President is win more Electoral College votes than your opponent. It doesn’t matter whether you win by one vote or a hundred; a win is a win. For Canadian politicians the situation is slightly more complicated. A party needs to win a majority of the 308 seats up for grabs in the House of Commons in order to have uncontested rule for the next four to five years.
When the election was called at the end of last November, the Liberal party of Canada had the most seats in the house, but not enough for undisputed rule. For a year and a half they had formed an uneasy alliance with the slightly left of centre New Democratic Party (NDP) in order to stay alive.
Following last night’s election there has been a switch in positioning for the top two parties. The Conservatives now hold the most seats of any party in the house with 124 followed by the Liberals with 103. In third place with 51 seats are the Quebec separatist party, The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP are fourth with 29 seats. (No that doesn’t add up; there’s also one independent.)
While the Conservative Party of Canada can point to the final tally and claim victory, this is far from the decisive win that they were hoping for, and could have perhaps anticipated. The federal Liberal party of Canada was one light punch away from being knocked out of the political arena completely if there had been someone out there capable of delivering the blow.
Paul Martin’s tenure as Prime Minister has either been marked by scandal or ineptitude. Whether it was ineptitude or just a lack of political instinct we’ll never know, but Paul Martin’s decision-making ability was so woeful that he had earned the sobriquet Mr. Dithers. (Nothing to do with Dagwood’s boss and a lot to do with dithering.)
It was this same bad judgement that caused him to make a bad situation worse when it came to the biggest modern day political scandal in Canada’s history. On its own, the sponsorship scandal was pretty smelly: the Liberals awarded public relations companies contracts for the anti-separatist campaign during the last independence referendum in Quebec and those companies kicked back part of their fees as unreported contributions to the Liberal party.
But Mr. Martin exacerbated the situation by first of all claiming he knew nothing about anything (he was finance minister at the time in former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government), and than tried to pin it all on his former boss. He went so far as to create a board of inquiry, The Gomerey Inquiry, named for its head Justice Gomerey, whose sole purpose seemed to be clearing Paul Martin’s name.
Considering he had spent the final two years of Mr. Chretien’s leadership sticking knives in his back and pins in various Jean Chretien voodoo dolls, the whole process made him look small and petty. He may not have been guilty of anything, but the way he handled it made him look incapable of dealing with a crisis.
Of course the Conservative Party of Canada wasn’t without its own internal problems as well, and there’s no way of knowing how much they impacted on their inability to take advantage of the Liberal weakness. The product of the merger of two right wing parties, the socially conservative Alliance party and the socially liberal Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, they still haven’t recovered from the shotgun wedding that saw them joined just prior to the last election.
Their biggest weakness in the province of Ontario, where they had hoped to make a breakthrough this time around, lies in the fact that the provincial conservative party is far more socially liberal than the bulk of the federal party. The best thing that could be said about their relationship is at least the provincial Conservatives didn’t publicly campaign against them.
This split within the party resulted in last spring’s defection of star candidate Belinda Stronach from the Conservatives to the Liberals just before a key vote in the house. With the vote on the same-sex marriage issue fast approaching, she claimed to be unable to sit with the Conservatives any longer and switched her allegiance.
What really hurt the Conservatives was that she was represented a key riding in the Toronto suburbs where they were hoping to make gains. Not only did Ms. Stronach retain her seat, but as a Liberal she increased her margin of victory.
Heading into the final week of the campaign it looked like the Conservatives were poised to elect a majority government. They had a 12% lead in the polls and the Liberals were foundering. Two weeks earlier the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had announced they were investigating the finance minister on suspicion of wrongdoing because of information leaked during a change in investment policy that could have led to insider trading.
How could they not form a majority government? Stephen Harper had successfully kept any of his loose cannons from shooting their mouths off or making any embarrassing pronouncements. In the eyes of most of the Canadian media he looked far more “Prime Minister like” than Paul Martin.
But a funny thing happened in the final week of the campaign. The Conservative party support started to slip, until they only ended up with 6% more of the vote then the Liberals: 36% to 30%. After having time to think about it, Canadians just weren’t ready to unconditionally entrust their country to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. They may have picked up a few seats here and there across the country outside of the traditional Alliance Party strongholds in the prairies, but not enough to make any claims to be a party of national unity by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact they even lost seats in British Columbia to the NDP. Seats that they had won in the last election were taken away from them as the NDP was able to take advantage of the Liberals and Conservatives splitting their votes, leaving the way clear for them to win five new seats in British Columbia.
The reality of the Conservative Party’s victory is that they are in an even more tenuous position for governing than the Liberals were. They have no potential allies in the House with whom they can broker a deal. It would be political suicide to approach the Bloc Quebecois after lambasting the Liberals during the campaign for jumping into bed with separatists, and there’s no else who would touch them with a ten-foot pole.
They have two choices open to them right now. They can shelve their more controversial ideas and programs for now; a new abortion law, new same sex marriage legislation, anything to do with healthcare, and cuts to social programs, and focus on those issues that not only will pass the house but make them look good to the public.
One of their promises was cutting the hated Goods and Service Tax (GST) by 1% as the first step to phasing it out all together. That would be something that all parties would support and the public would love.
Less safe, but still okay would be increasing military spending. As long as they show it’s not coming at the expense of other programming they should get enough support from the Liberals to pass it, and there has been enough in the press about the sorry state of equipment and wages in the armed forces that public sympathy shouldn’t be a problem.
Of course, their other option is to take a ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead’ approach. Introduce what they want when they want to, and when they are defeated, try for a sympathy vote by playing the role of victim. The nasty opposition wouldn’t let us even try to govern.
That would more than likely be political suicide and be seen as overtly cynical. Especially if they try and pass some of their more socially conservative agenda, or anything that will make the middle of the road electorate nervous.
The Conservative Party of Canada needs to take this opportunity to let Canadians forget about their social conservative agenda. They have to take this time to convince urban voters that they are not the scary zealots that the Liberals and the NDP have made them out to be.
If they can prove that they can run the country as efficiently as anyone else and not turn it into an outpost of the American Republican party, they have more chance of controlling their own destiny in the future. It might be tempting to go for broke with the Liberals without a leader, but it would end up backfiring.
This election did not give the Conservatives a mandate to remake the country in their own image. But it has given the country the opportunity to take a long hard look at the party and what it has to offer.